Q&A: A guitarist who performs therapy


Name: Oliver Jacobson
Age: 25
City: Berkeley
Position: Music therapist at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital


You now work mostly with the guitar, but you started with the violin at age 5. Was music something you gravitated toward?

Oliver Jacobson: My parents read in a book to start kids on music early, so when I was 5, they gave me a choice of instrument and I chose the violin. In high school, I started playing in some bands and applied to the Berklee College of Music, where I wanted to study jazz violin. I got in, but after a year and a half, I felt unfulfilled by trying to be the best and practicing all the time, so I left for nine months and went on tour.

Oliver Jacobson

J.: How did you first hear about music therapy and when did you decide that’s what you wanted to do?

OJ: I had no idea Berklee had such a program when I went there. I took one music therapy class there, and then I took time off to travel and play in bands, and in that process, I found clarity that I should go back to school to help heal people with music, so I went back and ended up finishing my degree in it.

J.: You are the first full-time music therapist at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, where you’ve been for almost a year. Is it still seen as an alternative therapy?

OJ: It is still seen as alternative, but it’s gaining much more ground, especially in children’s hospitals; the top children’s hospitals all have them now. Before my time, they had a part-time music therapist through a nonprofit. Most music therapy programs are donor-funded; they’re not included in the medical billing structure. A big piece of my job is outreach and telling donors about what I do and articulating the need for more music therapists. I can only see 12 percent of the patients here. We want to hire another one, but we need more donor funds.

J.: How does music help patients?

OJ: Currently I’m working with someone with cerebellar mutism, who had a brain tumor removed and, in the process, lost his ability to communicate. This functioning will come back, but currently he cannot speak. Singing promotes speech stimulation as well as pitch and inflection important for speech.

Music is a means of communication. If someone used to play the violin, they can do it on the iPad, and playing drums helps hand-eye coordination. Trying to tap into the musical parts of the brain can slowly help bring back more syllables and words.

I also spend a lot of time with kids in oncology undergoing chemotherapy. Kids experience trauma, but don’t have the verbal capacity to process it. I give patients a musical means of processing and understanding their hospital experience by playing drums or helping them write songs to find meaning in their hospitalization. I often record the final product. When the composition is played back, the patient feels validated by the experience.

J.: You used to work with aging populations with memory loss, such as Parkinson’s and hospice patients.

OJ: I really saw how music helps the quality of life for people with Parkinson’s. I did a bit of palliative care too, and am still doing a fair bit of that for kids. Readers can learn more about what I do here: www.bit.ly/ucsf-music.

What’s your Jewish background and does it ever come into play in your work life? Do you ever play Jewish songs for Jewish patients?

OJ: I grew up in Boulder, Colo. My dad is Jewish and we celebrated all the holidays and I am proud to be Jewish with our history, and that we’re still here. In palliative care, I did sometimes try to assess the spiritual background of the families I worked with, and would do some faith-based songs. It hasn’t come up recently, but I definitely do that when it applies.

“Talking with …” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to liz@jweekly.com.

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Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."